Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Tales of a Wandering Jew: The Jewish state, abnormal as ever

In my travels across Asia, from Far to Middle East, I encountered Jewish communities in various stages of development. Some such as the one in Saigon, are just beginning to build the foundations. Others such as those in Beijing and Shanghai are rapidly growing in numbers and communal development.

And others, such as Cochin and Cairo, are in the twilight of their days, working to ensure that their cultural heritage will continue after their communities are no more.

These issues are only relevant where Jews are the minority. What of the only place where we form the majority? Where does this community stand? What are its people up to, and how are they getting on? What tales can be told of the Jewish community of Israel? Describing the Jewish State is a whole 'nother proposition.

I returned to Israel after four years; for almost three of those, I was honored with the privilege of speaking and writing on her behalf; promoting her wonders, her achievements and her diversity; ardently defending her during her travails.

As always, some things had changed, but most remained exactly the same; my two weeks traveling Israel from top to bottom showed me that life in the Jewish state was as abnormal as ever.

In my wanderings through Israel, I always found people who defied my expectations. One person I met on a beach in Tel Aviv, Nathan, was involved in the settler movement and had just returned from protesting against the army at Homesh in Samaria. Fascinating fellow, 'cause he sure didn't look like a Kahane-quoting settler supporter. He was wearing preppy Western clothes and no kippa. Interestingly, his views on the security services are similar to those of an uber-leftist guy I met on the bus in Jerusalem, who was involved in the International Solidarity Movement.

This guy was wearing a kippa and looked like a yeshiva student, and mentioned he was going to "the territories." Then he said he was in ISM and was going to a far different part of the territories than I expected. So the settler supporter is in Abercrombie & Fitch, while the super pro-Palestinian Jew sports a kippa. Only in Israel.

I arrived just in time for Pessah, and was reminded of just how special it is to be in the Jewish state for this holiday. It began with the bus driver who wished all his passengers, with all his heart, a happy Pessah.

It continued with the foods that can only be found here, such as the kosher-for-pessah burgers at McDonalds, the spongy-laffa wrapped shwarmas in Kikar Dizengoff, and the matza-wrapped deep-fried hot dogs at the kiosks. Meanwhile, the supermarkets had cordoned off the hametz aisles behind plastic wrap, as if there was some kind of pornography sitting on the shelves.
The Israel I returned to is far more bustling than during my previous visit. Four years ago, Israel was still grappling with the daily insecurities of the second intifada; today the security situation seems much more under control, the center of Jerusalem was more packed with life. Perhaps this is due to what feels like a stronger security presence.

Tourism also seems to be on the rise, with far more foreign faces wandering through the Old City, and far more people floating in the Dead Sea. And the Israeli girls were far more beautiful than I remembered. Cheers to the Foreign Ministry and Israel21c for promoting Israel through its bevy of beauties in Maxim magazine, truly a good way to show off Israel's best assets.
While security seems to have improved, the aftershocks of the Second Lebanon War are palpable. In Haifa and the Galilee, I saw places where the katyushas had rained down, and I heard in the voices of residents resignation that a new war was just around the corner. I found general pessimism toward the current government and its ability to handle the problems that Israel faces.

Israelis have an attitude I could perhaps best characterize as "optimistic fatalism," a sense that somehow things may be much worse in the future, so I better enjoy today. Israel remains as confidant yet unsure of itself as ever.

At times, I found Israelis so focused on the present that they seemed to lack a real sense of how far we have come as a people. As Winston Churchill said, "The farther back you look, the farther forward you can see."

This sentiment was echoed at the new Herzl Museum on Jerusalem's Mount Herzl, whose moving presentation showed how far the Jewish people have come in little more than a century, going from stateless wanderers to be being free in our historic homeland. The dynamism of the Jewish community of Israel, and the renaissance of Jewish life that is found only in a country that we can call our own, is a tale of wonder to this wandering Jew.

Paul Rockower served as the press officer for the Consulate General of Israel to the US Southwest in Houston from 2003 to 2006.
Read about all my misadventures on my blog at, see the pictures from my misadventures at, and read my "Tales of a Wandering Jew" series at

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Jews of "Paris on the Nile"

After an amazing, wonderful two weeks wandering Israel from top to bottom, I made my way on to the Sinai for a "reverse exodus" with my already-overloaded backpack filled to the brim with matzah. In far less time than it took the Israelites to cross the Sinai, I arrived in 'Eretz Mitzrayim," and to Cairo- my final destination.

In the heart of Coptic Cairo, the oldest part of present-day Cairo, there remains the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Down a sunken staircase, and through a walled alleyway, Egypt's oldest synagogue can be found. There are several legends related to the Ben Ezra synagogue and its location. It is believed to be the site where Moses was found, lying in a basket amid the reeds, by Pharaoh's daughter. It is also believed to be site of the temple of the Prophet Jeremiah, and the location where he gathered the Jewish exiles following the conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians.

The shell of the synagogue dates back to the 4th century, when it was a Christian church. In the 9th century, the Copts sold the church to the Jewish community to meet the tax demands of then-ruler Ibn Tulun. In the 12th century, Rabbi Abraham Ben Ezra of Jerusalem, who became the namesake for the current structure, restored the synagogue.

Over the centuries, the synagogue was subject to further renovations, and the final product is stunning. The two-story synagogue is complete, with swirling mother-of-pearl inlaid walls, and ceilings covered in geometrical patterns of stars, rectangles and pentagons, as well as floral patterns and a Star of David in the center. Just under the ceiling, black-and-white capped marble arches sit. Marble-coated columns line the synagogue, and a marble bimah sits in the middle. Two twisted metal candelabras stand just beyond the ark, which is intricately carved in wood and mother-of-pearl, under a gilded temple motif and "ten commandments" slabs.

Although the Ben Ezra Synagogue is no longer a fully functional synagogue, it is still used to celebrate some holidays, such as a recent Hanukkah celebration. It was also the sight of a recent Bar Mitzvah for the son of an Israeli diplomat. Meanwhile, nearly 1,800 tourists visit the Ben Ezra Synagogue each day.

Of the 29 synagogues that existed in Cairo, only 12 remain, with only 3 remaining in any functional use. Besides the Ben Ezra Synagogue, there is still a working synagogue in downtown Cairo known as the Sha'ar Hashamaim Synagogue and another in the suburb of Ma'adi.

Egypt was once home to one of the most storied Jewish communities, with the community reaching upwards of 80,000 in the early 20th century. For centuries, Egypt was a center of Jewish learning, with a number of Jewish luminary scholars such as Maimonedes and Rabbi Isaac Luria calling Egypt home. In the beginning of the 20th century, the Jews of Cairo played vital roles in the business, banking and retail sectors as Egypt slowly built a modern economy; in the days when Cairo was considered "Paris on the Nile," the Jews of Cairo thrived.

The Jews of Egypt were so entrenched in Egyptian society that in the early 20th century, many Egyptian Jews opposed the Zionist movement, and the Association of Egyptian Jewish Youth proclaimed in its manifesto, "Egypt is our homeland and Arabic is our language." One Jewish community leader, Rene Qattawi, went as far as to write a letter to the World Jewish Congress, urging them to cease the calls for a Jewish state, and rather advocated that Egypt be considered as a place of refuge for Eastern European Jewry.

Unfortunately, the latter half of this century saw a new exodus for Egypt's Jews. Agitation against the Jewish community in the 1940's, through to Israel's independence and later 1956 Sinai War lead to the rapid diminishment of the historic Egyptian Jewish community. Today there are between 100-200 Jews remaining in Cairo, as well as staff of the Israeli Embassy and other assorted Jews connected to various diplomatic missions. The remaining community is elderly, and mostly comprised of women.

I met the embodiment of the remaining Jewish community when I stopped at the gorgeous art deco/art nouveau-style Sha'ar Hashamayim Synagogue for Shabbat. I arrived on the Sabbath morning, and was the only one there except for Joumen, a lovely elderly Jewish matron at the synagogue desk. Joumen spoke Arabic and French, but no Hebrew or English. We briefly discussed the remaining community in Cairo. She said that the community gets its kosher food from Israel. The Shabbat services are sparse, but the community comes together to celebrate the holidays at the Sha'ar Hashamayim Synagogue, most recently for Passover. She had been to Israel before, and enjoyed her trip but considered Egypt home. "The situation was difficult at times, but it is fine now," she said. The peace process between Israel and Egypt had helped ease the situation for the Jews of Egypt, and led to restorations of Cairo's synagogues.

When the Jews began steadily leaving Egypt, they left many of their religious books behind at various synagogues. Following the Camp David Accords, protocols between Egypt and Israel stipulated for creation of Jewish Heritage Libraries. The first Jewish Heritage Library was inaugurated October 1988 at the Sha'ar Hashamayim Synagogue. I received a small tour of the library by an Egyptian guide who actually spoke Hebrew, which he studied in university in Egypt. The library holds 7,000 books in various languages and subjects- collected from synagogues, schools and homes. The library's prize possession is a 500-year old Babylonian Talmud, which was printed originally in Italy.

In addition, while I was at the Ben Ezra Synagogue, I spoke with Abdelhamid, a librarian at the Jewish Heritage Library located there. Interestingly, he also spoke Hebrew, owing to studies at Tel Aviv University where he learned about the Jewish people. He noted that the Ben Ezra Library, currently under renovation, was established in 1998 and holds 3,000 religious and historical books in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino and Judeo-Arabic. He also mentioned a third library, connected to the Kariate community.

Abdelhamid also mentioned that the Ben Ezra Synagogue was made famous in the mid-1890's, for the discovery of a geniza, a cache of historical documents and letters. More than 100,000 documents were unearthed, some of which dated back to the earliest years of the synagogue, painting a clear picture of Jewish life over many centuries in Cairo; these documents are today found in academic institutions, museums and libraries throughout the world.

While the Jewish community of Cairo may be fading, the efforts to preserve this historic community's legacy and heritage as found in its synagogues and books help to ensure that the Jews of Egypt will never be forgotten.

O' Jerusalem

I was anxious with anticipation as I made my way to Israel. The journey through the hills and valleys of Jordan was stunning- verdant green and covered in olive trees. My shared taxi descended to the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge, and I cleared Jordanian customs. After I took a bus across the border, and I saw the symbol of my people flying proudly in the desert. My heart fluttered like the blue-and-white flag in the desert winds, and I sang "hatikvah" to myself.

Even if I were more eloquent, even if my pen was more obedient, even if my words did glow, I would be incapable of describing the sensation, when after 5 months of exhausting journey through lands foreign to me, after 4 years of absence, I made my accent to Jerusalem and spied her ancient walls. Of the 75 cities I have visited in my travels, none are more special or moving than golden Jerusalem. In the words of Amin Ma'alouf, in the book Leo Africanus, "Holy city, but full of impieties; idle city, but one which gives the world a masterpiece everyday."

I took the bus from the border to Jerusalem and trudged my way to the Jaffa gate, where I made my triumphant entrance. Only slightly less triumphant than Allenby himself, cause he didn't have to lug a 22 kilo sack. I wandered through the alleyways I know so well, and went directly to the Kotel. I went straight up to the wall, bag and all, took off my hat and put my head against the cold wall that is the last remnants of our holy temple. I was literally trembling as I said my prayers. While I was praying, a bird's white feather landed at my feet. I collected it and finished my prayers.

It has been nearly 4 years since I was last in Israel. Almost 3 of those years, I was honored with privilege of speaking and writing on her behalf; of promoting her wonders, her achievements and her diversity; of ardently defending her during her travails.

My words fail me because my emotions on returning are far too plentiful. I have joyously returned to the land of my forefathers. I return to a land where I have friends like family. A place where I constantly discover family that I never knew I had- family from the "old country." I return to a land where the people always amaze me with their joie de vivre, their joy in life. For a land tarred in the media as a war zone, I am always so amazed that so many still leave their front doors unlocked at night- something I would never dream of in America. It is a land where I hold no citizenship, but I am always one of its people.

As I welcomed my first Shabbat back in Israel, as I watched the night fall like a benediction over the eternal capital of our eternal people, all I could think of was the blessing that my father recites over his children each Sabbath and pray the same for Israel:

"May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord shine his countenance upon you. May the Lord be gracious unto you and grant you peace."